“This is Our War Too”
In an Op-Ed for spiegel.de, Ralf Fücks and Marieluise Beck present 10 propositions about what is at stake in Russia’s war against Ukraine and what needs to be done.
We just returned from our third trip to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. We held political talks and met old friends in Kyiv and visited Kharkiv, where people demonstrated remarkable resilience. Just like in many other of the country’s regions. During our last visit in June 2022, the atmosphere was oppressive; the city was half empty, the military situation uncertain. Now it is full of life again, even though nothing is normal — Russian missiles can fly in just 40 seconds from across the border. In the town of Izyum we learnt what Russian occupation means: arbitrary rule, mass graves, torture and sexualised violence. The many impressions made it clear to us what is at stake – not only for Ukraine, but for the future of Europe.
- Let’s not mince words: German politics are partly responsible for this European catastrophe. From the chumminess between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin through Angela Merkel’s years to February 2022, Berlin downplayed signs of danger and sent the wrong signals towards Moscow. The list of mistakes is long: The caution after the Russian invasion of Georgia, the embarrassed silence after the large-scale hacker attack on the Bundestag, the stubborn illusions about a “diplomatic solution” after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of swaths of east Ukrainian territory in 2014, the ignorance of Putin’s historical revisionist pamphlets, the stubborn adherence to the “energy partnership with Russia”, the shrugging acceptance of Russian war crimes in Syria — all this reassured Putin and his entourage that no serious resistance could be expected from Germany. With oil and gas imports from Russia, we financed the regime’s arms build-up while weapons for Ukraine were declared a taboo in order “not to provoke Russia”. In effect, we lowered the threshold for Russian aggression.
- That is the prequel. But the outcome of this war also affects us directly. Putin is not only attacking Ukraine, but the transatlantic alliance and the European order. All we have to do is finally take seriously what the Russian leadership demanded on the eve of the attack: a revision of NATO’s eastward enlargement and a return to Yalta, the conference at the end of World War II that assigned eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere of influence. If the West now presents itself as weak, what will prevent Putin from testing NATO in the Baltics once Russia feels militarily strong again? Either Russian neo-imperialism is stopped in Ukraine – or the next war will take place on NATO territory. Poland and the Baltic countries know this.
- Full support for Ukraine is not just about solidarity. This war affects our very own interests: International law must not be replaced by the law of the jungle; wars of aggression must be outlawed and the equal sovereignty of all states respected; collective security can only exist with the renunciation of violence. If we prove incapable of defending these principles, it will encourage authoritarian regimes worldwide to use violence as a means of politics. At the same time, any success by Putin in Ukraine, however small, will deepen the rifts in the transatlantic alliance and within the EU. Regimes ready for war despise those showing aversion to conflict as weak. Peace and security must be defended against them with a policy of strength.
- Consequently: This is our war too. This does not mean that we should send the Bundeswehr to Ukraine and risk a big Russia-NATO showdown. The Ukrainians are ready to fight for us, too. It is in our very own interest that they win. Winning the war means defending Ukraine’s full territorial integrity and political sovereignty. The vast majority of Ukrainians are determined to do so, despite all the sacrifices the war demands. They know what it means to live under Russian occupation: Tyranny, mass graves, torture, arbitrary arrests, deportations, eradication of the Ukrainian language and culture. No one must force Ukraine to surrender millions of people. And no one must pressure Ukraine into “territorial concessions” that permanently undermine its security and economic viability.
- Whether Ukraine can win the war crucially depends on us. The West has by far the greater economic, technical and military potential vis-à-vis Russia. What is lacking is the political will to help Ukraine win. With all due recognition for the support provided so far, it was aimed at ensuring that Ukraine can hold its ground at great cost, but not at it gaining the upper hand.
- The political goal determines the military means. If the end of this war is to be the liberation of the occupied territories and the unrestricted sovereignty of Ukraine, the West must provide all the weapons needed for a successful counter-offensive as quickly as possible. As long as Putin can hope that the West grows tired and forces Ukraine into a “compromise” with Russia, there is no chance for a peace worth the name. The much repeated formula that Ukraine must decide for itself what concessions it is willing to make will remain a hollow phrase if we restrict military aid so much that Kyiv is can choose only between a war of attrition with heavy losses and a ceasefire that cements a division of the country. That would be a tragedy for Ukraine and a devastating signal far beyond Europe.
- German policy has come a long way since the start of Russia’s all-out war. We are now Ukraine’s second most important arms supplier – albeit far behind the U.S. Nevertheless, our support to date follows the pattern of “too little, too late”. Chancellor Olaf Scholz calls this prudence. In fact, our hesitation is driving up Ukrainian losses. It contributed to Kyiv’s failure to use the momentum of the successful counter-offensive in autumn 2022 to liberate much of its territory. It gave Russia time to boost its arms production, fortify its front lines and entrench itself behind minefields. The renewed seesaw over the delivery of Taurus guided missiles limits Ukraine’s ability to attack Russian bases, depots and supply routes deep in enemy territory.
- Our fear of a further escalation of the war keeps Ukraine locked in asymmetric warfare. It is attacked from Russia but is supposed to be able to defend itself only on its own territory. However, the right to self-defence, guaranteed under international law, does not stop at the country’s own borders. While Russia uses the entire conventional arsenal of a great power, we hesitate at any new weapons system that would put Ukraine in a stronger position. Instead of worrying about Putin’s “red lines”, we should set clear limits. The Kremlin must know that every new missile attack, every attack on Ukrainian grain exports, every attack on energy supplies will be met with increased support for Ukraine. This also includes the message: keep your hands off weapons of mass destruction. Their use would have devastating consequences for Russia. This is called deterrence. After all the futile negotiations, it is the only language Putin understands.
- Negotiations can only take place when Moscow is ready to respect Ukraine’s full political sovereignty and withdraw its troops from the occupied territories. Mind you, these are not maximum demands, but the minimum required by international law and the European order. Any sustainable peace also requires that those responsible for Russian war crimes be held accountable. Those who unleash a war of aggression against a peaceful neighbour must not be allowed to walk free. A third element of any negotiated settlement must be compensation for the destruction Russia has caused in Ukraine. With the Russian Central Bank’s frozen assets, there is a bargaining chip for this. It must also be clear that neither Ukraine’s accession to the EU nor its NATO membership are negotiable. Russia has no right to determine the future of its neighbours.
- Russia’s war against Ukraine is also a test of the strength of Western democracies. Future historians will see it as a key moment for the future of Europe and the international order. If we fail this test, we fail not only vis-à-vis Ukraine. The balance of power will then shift further in favour of authoritarian powers that see the “decadent West” in decline. We should not do them this favour. Conversely, an independent, free Ukraine can become an anchor point for a democratic transformation in the entire region. This also applies to Russia. Those who do not want to write off this country permanently should do everything to ensure that Russian neo-imperialism fails in Ukraine. That is a prerequisite for any change for the better.
This article first appeared at Spiegel.de
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